Goldmark: Outrage over Pussy Riot sentence puts Russia on notice

Members of a female punk band "Pussy Riot" Members of a female punk band "Pussy Riot" (from left-to-right) Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, sit inside a glass enclosure during a court hearing in Moscow. (August 8, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Peter Goldmark Peter Goldmark, former publisher of the International Herald

Peter Goldmark writes a weekly column for Newsday. He is former budget director of New York State and ...

On a December afternoon in 1955, something snapped in Rosa Parks. She got on the bus in Montgomery, Ala., that took her home from her work as a seamstress. But she refused to move to the back, where she was "supposed" to sit. Parks was black, and the front of the bus was for white people.

In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit peddler in Tunisia, set himself afire to protest a corrupt regime and its brutal police. His suicide triggered the Arab spring that has swept across the Middle East.

Turning points in history often erupt from the actions of strong people who put their lives on the line for a belief. This summer another gutsy blow for freedom was struck, this time by a music group of three young Russian women protesting the dictatorship in their country.

Pussy Riot will be known not for its music but for the willingness of its members to risk everything for freedom. Like Parks, they knew they would be arrested. And like Parks they went ahead anyway.

What the Pussy Riot women did was call for the removal of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, in a prominent Moscow church. For doing so, they were sentenced on Aug. 17 to a penal colony for two years by a politically controlled court.

Our job now is to make sure they don't just vanish from the public mind. Moscow police are looking for at least two more members of the band, and the ones already in custody will not have an easy time if the world averts its eyes. In Russia, a penal colony can mean hellish conditions, and two of the three women are young mothers.

In banishing the women, Putin isn't just revealing his weakness. He's also acting in accord with a long and benighted tradition in a country with a bloody autocratic pedigree. Down through the centuries, Russian despots have exiled, brutalized or killed political protesters from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Natan Sharansky.

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Since the whole idea of such brutality is to silence dissent, let's take a moment to listen to what the three band members had to say, in their own words, from their statements before the court.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: "Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song 'Mother of God, Drive Putin Out' violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating. . . . In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch's blessing, to unite the visual image of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture . . . could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia."

Maria Alekhina: "Our performance, at first a small and somewhat absurd act, snowballed into an enormous catastrophe. This would obviously not happen in a healthy society. Russia, as a state, has long resembled an organism sick to the core. And the sickness explodes out into the open when you rub up against its inflamed abscesses."

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: "Every day more people understand that if the system is attacking three young women who performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for 30 seconds . . . it only means that this system fears the truth, sincerity, and straightforwardness we represent. . . . Katya, Masha and I may be in prison, but I do not consider us defeated."

Russia is a long way from America. But you and I enjoy the freedom and prosperity of a country founded by people willing to run the same risks and speak out for the same values as Rosa Parks, Mohammed Bouazizi and Pussy Riot did. For that reason we salute them. And for that reason, the rulers of Russia will cower and cringe as they come to understand that they have been playing with fire.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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